Bill gives much to chew on

Opinion Posted 01/10/18
With the publication of Michael Gove’s agriculture bill, it’s going to be quite hard for anyone to say they don’t know what’s happening or where farming in England is heading.

The amount of detail which DEFRA has published to accompany the bill is phenomenal, and will provide a field day for policy wonks.

There’s masses to chew over here, but the headlines are already known:

  • direct payments to farmers based on the amount of land they have will continue to be made as they are now in 2019 and 2020. There will then be a transition period in England between 2021 and 2027 while payments are gradually phased out;
  • all farmers will see a cut in their payments from the start of the transition, but those who receive the highest payments will see bigger reductions initially. Money which used to be used for payments will be switched to pay farmers for providing public goods;
  • instead of direct payments, next year will see the start of the environmental land management system which will pay more to those farmers providing the most public goods such as better air and water quality, public access to the countryside and measures to reduce flooding;
  • to help new entrants make a start in farming and give farmers flexibility to plan for the future, direct payments during the transition period up until 2027 will be “delinked” from the requirement to farm the land. These payments – which may be calculated according to money received in previous years – can be used by farmers to invest in their business, diversify or retire and make way for new entrants;
  • the bill will also be underpinned by measures to increase productivity and invest in research and development. For example, there will be funding for farmers to collaborate on research projects such as soil health or sustainable livestock farming.

This all looks good on paper, but will it work in the real world? The trouble is that the bill’s central idea – paying farmers to produce public goods – has been tried before and been found wanting. While the countryside stewardship scheme and its predecessors have been running, the numbers of birds and other species which depend on particular habitats to survive have been declining. As DEFRA itself says in the policy documents accompanying the bill: “There has also been a sustained decline in diversity across plant, animal and insect species, attributable to changing land use and intensive agricultural production.”

In 2015, DEFRA estimates that agriculture produced 10% of UK greenhouse gas emissions, at a cost of £3 billion. While total UK greenhouse gas emissions fell by 41% between 1990 and 2016, emissions from agriculture fell by only 16%. The annual external cost to farmers from soil erosion and compaction from agriculture was estimated at £305 million in 2010 for England and Wales.

As every farmer knows, direct payments have come with conditions to prevent environmental damage. The bureaucracy which tried to make direct payments work so that they didn’t harm the environment will be replaced by a bureaucracy which tries to make payment for public goods work. The notion that what this bill sets out will somehow leave farmers any more free from red tape is fanciful.


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